Jennie Vengris

Our in conversation with … series of posts introduces readers to the people behind the Transforming Stories, Driving Change project. These are the artists, researchers, and community participants who desire Transforming Stories to make a substantive contribution to civic engagement in the city of Hamilton.

Jennie Vengris is a co-Investigator on Transforming Stories, Driving Change and Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at McMaster University.

I think the method and process is a good one. It elicited all sorts of conversation. And it did get some of us who are firmly in our heads, out of our heads a little bit, which I think it is hopeful.

— Jennie Vengris


So what is your primary role on Transforming Stories?

I’m on the leadership team of Transforming Stories, and I joined the project in its early stages. I am relatively new to academia, but I have a 10-year history of doing community work in Hamilton. So, part of why Chris invited me was because I have a lot of contextual understanding of the community, a good sense of the politics and players and engagement processes, all of the stuff that you won’t read about on a website or know formally. So, I think that’s why [the project’s principle investigators, Chris Sinding and Catherine Graham,] brought me on.

So you were involved in the pilot. Were you able to take part in the performance-as-research activities?

So we had been talking theoretically about the method based on the research evidence that Catherine had reviewed. And it didn’t sort of land with us. We kept on wondering, what would this look like? And what would it feel like? So, Catherine invited the research team to participate in the process together, as a group. I was terrified because it was asking us to open up emotionally and vulnerably in front of people in a way that we hadn’t before. So, I felt nervous about that initial process. But it went well!

I think what made it go well was Catherine’s careful facilitation. And I think the method and process is a good one. It elicited all sorts of conversation. And it did get some of us who are firmly in our heads, out of our heads a little bit, which I think it is hopeful.

What are some of the tensions you experienced in doing performance-as-research with community members?

When we were talking about which groups to work with, we considered some of the people I had met when I was a policy analyst with the City of Hamilton. When I worked on a housing and homelessness plan for the city, I had met a group of women called the Women’s Housing Planning Collaborative. And I fell in love with these women! When we talked about the pilot, I said that I knew this amazing group of women. Why don’t we reach out to them? And so we did.

But I will say that I did feel apprehensive, and I told the team this. When you do community work, you build really strong relationships. I didn’t want to jeopardize my relationship with the women if we screwed things up. What if this process felt weird to them? Or if we all came in as a bunch of academics and propose this weird thing that made the women feel uncomfortable? I just worried that it could damage my relationship with them. Just those worlds colliding, my past community development world, with my present academic world, felt a bit hard for me. So, I did feel a bit nervous about sort of being positioned as the champion of performance-as-research, as this was a NEW process for me.

But it ended up being just fine. I wasn’t just fine, it was great! I think what helped is that we went to their space. We brought delicious food. And Catherine is really personable. She is really warm. She wandered in and just sort of disarmed people. She said, “Here’s what we’re doing. We kind of don’t know what were doing. We need you to help us figure out what were doing.”

And I think the other thing is that we were part of the process. The research team participated in the story circle with the women. Catherine asked us to think about what housing in Hamilton would look like 10 years from now if the Women’s Housing Planning Collaborative’s advocacy work had worked. I was very pregnant at the time and I shared a pretty personal story. I think we needed to bring our personal stuff in that space to level the power imbalance that existed. I think those things helped.

What can Transforming Stories offer Social Work?

I teach the Introduction to Social Welfare course in the School of Social Work. I often invite the Women’s Housing Planning Collaborative Advisory to do guest lectures on lived experience advocacy. And those classes always go well. Students are always riveted. But one thing I did notice in the papers that they were writing, and in their reflections were the way they were taking up the women’s stories. They talked about the bravery of women and the tragedy of the women. Though I do feel it’s important for them to hear from folks with lived experience, the way it was being framed in their writing was pathologizing.

So, the first place the Women’s Housing Planning Collaborative Advisory performed was in a social work class. And I believe it shifted the way students understood the kinds of issues that the women were performing. They saw the women as individuals and human beings who lived that experience. What I think social work students got from their performance was a better understanding of the collective problems that we try to talk about in social work, which is so powerful. The way the women constructed the performance, and the way Catherine help them figure out how to convey their experiences using performance, really helped students understand people’s lived experiences of a much broader collective problem around income insecurity, housing and food insecurity. That’s huge!

What advice would you give a social worker who may want to engage in a performance-as-research project similar to Transforming Stories?

I would encourage people to do it. To actually explore more creative ways of engaging community. Not just consulting people, but engaging people and building relationships, longer-term relationships with people. I think I would encourage macro practitioners, even though we tend to be a fairly heady bunch, to immerse themselves in the process and be part of the process. I think that’s so important. Another piece of advice: be really careful about using this process. I do worry a bit that some people see arts-based methodologies as easy, or kind of flaky, or that anybody can do it. Our team has thought carefully about how this works. There is a lot of, particularly on Catherine’s part, solid thinking that went into how to do this ethically, and in a way that makes everybody feel good and excited. So, I just cautioned people not to use it cavalierly. To do it but to be really thoughtful about it.



Melanie Skene

Our in conversation with … series of posts introduces readers to the people behind the Transforming Stories, Driving Change project. These are the artists, researchers, and community participants who desire Transforming Stories to make a substantive contribution to civic engagement in the city of Hamilton.

Melanie Skene is a visual artist, puppeteer, and production coordinator on Transforming Stories, Driving Change.

This project is adding different layers of voices to our vision of Hamilton. Hamilton is changing. There are people talking about change, and a lot of times it’s the same people, the politicians and that. So, we need to add new voices that they don’t get heard because they also have a stake in how Hamilton changes.

— Melanie Skene

How would you summarize Transforming Stories to someone who is new to it?

Transforming Stories is about creating a collective story, a public story. A collaborative story about how we want to transform our city so that it is more socially just for all residents, especially the marginalized.

And what is your role on Transforming Stories?

I am the production coordinator, which is my official title. But my role is to do a lot of different things (laughs)! My primary role is to deal with spaces, getting spaces booked, booking the catering, getting things set up, moving tables and that. That would be my first role. But I also help facilitate. And help with stage management, direction and props. And the artwork on the blog and so on.

You seem like the “Resident Visual Artist” on Transforming Stories.

That is not my title, but I like that! It’s interesting … as a puppeteer I kind of span the visual, and the theatrical. So, I think of myself as a visual artist. I am more of a builder than a performer. The visual artistry for Transforming Stories has also become my primary role or function.

How did you get involved on the project?

Actually, because I know Catherine [Graham, the co-principle investigator of Transforming Stories]. I did my Masters in Environmental Studies at York University, which is a multi-disciplinary program. I concluded the program with a community arts project, and it involved organizing a summer solstice festival, puppet making workshops, promotions, etc. I ended up running the festival for three years. Catherine connected with me because she knew that I had experience with organizing community initiatives. Plus, my job at the Immigrant Women’s Centre where I was running an after-school arts program had just ended. So I was available.

I have been on Transforming Stories right from the start. Even before we had done any recruitment. So I have been involved since the pilot phase.

How do you feel this project has evolved from when you first started

That is a good question because it certainly has. And from what I have I’ve seen we have learned a lot! Our first group was actually really interesting because we didn’t move beyond the initial workshops. We did story circle, and we did image theatre, and then that was it. We weren’t entirely on the same page with them. And so we had to work on the tools that would help us more clearly define our goals and get people get more involved, so community participants could understand the aims of the project, and performance-as-research.

And in the beginning, our team was very small and busy. You know, academics are very busy. So we realized that we had to expand the team.

And for the pilot, we worked with groups who already knew each other. That had a huge impact, and I would say a positive impact because there was already trust. We still had to build it but maybe not quite as much. Now, we are doing something totally different because we are working with individuals who may not even know each another. That’s something we haven’t done before. Now that we are going out to individuals and just the kind of discussions we are having, it seems like there’s still so much that is unknown.

So we are exploring new territory. Constantly. I think there’s still so much to learn. Sometimes I feel we are almost in the early stages. The second part of the pilot. But I guess, to be honest with you, that is how it is always going to be. We are never going to stop learning.

Many people have talked about Transforming Stories as being “transformative”? What transformative aspects have you witnessed with the pilots?

Well, I think one of the things that doesn’t get discussed as much, that really intrigues me, is its potential to help healing. One of the participants actually stated that this was a healing process. She came in really resistant, and then in our very first performance exchange, she talked about how this was healing. I was really fascinated by that. I thought it was a by-product that we hadn’t necessarily thought about. We are not in the medical profession. But Art can have a therapeutic healing aspect to it.

I think individuals need to be healed in order to affect our collective healing. So, the healing process is a really an important part of the project because individuals need that to build a better community. So, I think that this project has contributed to that.

Based on the pilot, what has been the impact of Transforming Stories?

Adding voices. This project is adding different layers of voices to our vision of Hamilton. Hamilton is changing. There are people talking about change, and a lot of times it’s the same people, the politicians and that. So, we need to add new voices that they don’t get heard because they also have a stake in how Hamilton changes.

Paula Grove

Our in conversation with … series of posts introduces readers to the people behind the Transforming Stories, Driving Change project. These are the artists, researchers, and community participants who desire Transforming Stories to make a substantive contribution to civic engagement in the city of Hamilton.


Paula Grove is a theatre director, teacher, and performer who is the Assistant Director on Transforming Stories, Driving Change.

How were you introduced to Transforming Stories, Driving Change?

I am a theatre artist, and I have worked with other artists participating on Transforming Stories. The project team brought me on board to work as a theatre coach.

What do you like about Transforming Stories?

In Hamilton there is a great need to keep a dialogue going between all the various constituents of our city. It’s alarming to watch as some people become more and more marginalized. They feel their voices matter less and less. They feel they have less and less agency to make change. They often feel very alone, misjudged, disrespected. At first our participants may not believe there are any solutions to their problems but this project, at the very least, helps them to express what’s happening to them. That alone seems to give them a sense of renewed power. Then, as we begin to explore solutions, it’s quite extraordinary how creative their ideas can be. In fact,  these people exhibit exceptional creativity. After all, great creativity is required every day of their lives as they tackle the challenges of living in poverty. I’d even say they are creative problem-solving geniuses compared to most people living above the poverty line!

With our help the participants can overcome any trepidations about performing and this has a spillover effect as they develop confidence and a stronger voice. They also develop their capacity to collaborate with other participants. They feel less isolated and strengthen their sense of trust in others in the community.

I know the transformative power of theatre from my own life: I have lived experience of some of the issues that this project is interested in and have used theatre to tell my stories. It’s been very empowering for me and so I know it can be for others too. It’s a great privilege to share this journey with our participants. I feel really excited by what I’ve seen so far.

If you were going to invite someone from the community to participate on Transforming Stories, what are some pieces of advice you might give them?

Past participants have talked about what participating on this project has done for them personally. And it’s so moving to hear. They have developed a lot more confidence. They’ve created new friendships. They feel heard. They feel empowered. They have become more vocal in their community. And they feel that they have agency. Basically, seeing their confidence grow, that’s what is really inspiring.

And actually, they have been making changes because decision-makers have seen their work [from the Transforming Stories pilot conducted in 2016]. They said at our last meeting, “You know the food bank has changed the way they do things. We feel we’ve had a little part in that because of the show we did for them, and they saw what we were concerned about.” I mean that’s huge! There’s no proof that their performances directly changed their food bank situation, but there’s a reason to think they had a strong influence.

And oh yes, it’s fun!

Participant asks important questions

“Does It Really Ever Add Up to Anything? Who Is Listening?”

— Cass Henry

Community participant Cass Henry, who participated in creating the first performance of the pilot project for Transforming Stories, Driving Change, shares important questions about what effect this work actually has in the world. They are questions the research team will take up in the next phase of the project, in consultation with community participants who are working hard to make their voices heard.

Participating in this project has been a dual-punch for me. It has been a joy — to interact with my peers, to create a piece that is show-worthy, to perform and experience both the jitters and the post-performance-high. It has also been disastrously heart-breaking — to put so much energy into something and not really know that it will affect any form of change in the immediacy, to know that the next time I interact with a social service I am still likely to face the same problems I have faced previously, to expect that those in positions of power who have seen our work all agree it is though-provoking, but will it actually matter when policy is more of a financial numbers game than a human interest process?

I hesitate to think some of these thoughts and certainly to claim ownership of them by writing about them, because the process of creating our piece for Transforming Stories, Driving Change was truly a dream. I felt like a VIP who was coming to the table with all the knowledge and this research team was providing us with the tools (art) to squeeze out as much of that knowledge as I was willing to share. I felt respected, honoured, and truly inspired during the workshop phase of the process. When it came time to perform our work-in-progress, I felt treated like a real professional — we were fed, given time and space to practice, and we were financially compensated for our time. I have not previously (or since!) had such an amazing experience as a research participant, where I felt my integrity was upheld at every single turn. I highly recommend to anyone who has the opportunity to participate in this project that they take it!

But at the end of the day, tired from hours of work, practicing, performing and wrap-up discussion, I walk away wondering — does it really ever add up to anything? Who is listening?

We end our performance with the words “We need to talk.” And that couldn’t be more true. But when we leave our audience with their memory of our performance, that is the end of the conversation for us. We are still not invited to talk in other platforms. Our voices are given a momentary volume burst, before once more being silenced. Those with the power are making decisions that effect our daily lives, but rarely ever ask for our input or feedback in a meaningful way.

So do I write a review about my experience, about how lovely the researchers were, about how wonderful it was to be able to perform in front of students in the field and hopefully give them a different perspective of the system than they might find in their textbooks, about how empowered I felt in the moments after walking off stage after each performance …..?

Or do I write about how I really feel, about how I wonder whether this research ever informs true change? Are we merely stuck in the same rutted track, forever pushing against the edges, but in the end, succumb to the all-mighty dollar, sinking back once more to the path of least resistance?

The Audience Plays Their Part

Picture of whiteboard comments from audience
These are the stories of people who…

Our blog has been on a bit of a hiatus as we organize all the material that came out of our May 2nd performance of “When My Home Is Your Business.” We were pleased to see former TSDC performers, participants from the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton’s Displacements project, housing support workers, folks from the Community Legal Clinic and from church groups and community organizations, as well as a number of McMaster researchers, come out to the first performance of this new play. Our four performers did a great job of showing the audience what life is like in a building where tenants are trying to create a sense of neighbourliness, but where their needs and desires don’t seem count for much. They gave us a real feel for what it is like to try to build a sense of home when you are facing:

  • intimidating Supers who blame tenants instead of making repairs
  • elevators that don’t work reliably
  • fire alarms constantly going off because of excessive humidity or dust from construction
  • laundry rooms where half (or more) of the machines don’t work….

Despite all this, their performance offered the hope that people can work together to create a life where there is time and space for tenants to enjoy each other’s company and where despite it all, they can “stop and smell the flowers.”

But the story of “When My Home is Your Business” didn’t end with the performance. Discussions between audience members, the comments they left on index cards, their graffiti-like posts about what they thought life could be like in Hamilton if things changed for the better, all added to the story the play had started to tell.

After the performance, we asked audience members to write anonymous messages on index cards to tell us who they would talk to about the performance and what they would tell them. The messages reflected the different connections people in the audience have and the different kinds of messages they might want to relay to different people in their lives.

Audience responses transcribed from index cards
Audience responses transcribed from index cards

After filling out the cards, the audience divided into four different groups of 10-12 to discuss what life might be like for the people in the play if things changed for the better. A lot of interesting ideas and potential new stories came out in these discussions. Some people thought that non-profit and co-op housing would give tenants more control over their living situations. Others suggested that tenant’s associations were the key to protecting their collective rights, and some proposed that housing should be considered a fundamental human right, not just a way to make a profit for private businesses. One group discussed the current rent strike in Stoney Creek and how actions like this create a memory of collective action.

Other audience members emphasized the importance of places where people can get together to get to know each other, other than just the elevator or the space in front of the mailboxes in their building. Still others pointed to the fact that not all the problems shown in the play are fundamentally problems of housing: people need adequate incomes to be able to build stable living situations, we need more accessible support services for people living with, or caring for others who live with, mental illness and addiction. We also discussed how the city needs to get behind affordable housing and how city services need not only to respond to phone calls promptly, but to actually do something about the complaints they receive in a timely manner.

It was a lot to take in, but as people left the room, many of them shared their personal sense of what we should remember by summing up their views as “The story of people who… in a city where….”

Picture of whiteboard comments from audience members
In a city where…

Reading through all these responses, our research team was reminded of the way cultural theorist Michael Warner, in his essay “Publics and Counterpublics,” talks about what it takes to create public consciousness around an issue:

Public discourse says not only: “Let a public exist,” but: “Let it have this character, speak this way, see the world in this way.” It then goes out in search of confirmation that such a public exists, with greater or lesser success—success being further attempts to cite, circulate, and realize the world-understanding it articulates. Run it up the flagpole, and see who salutes. Put on a show, and see who shows up (82).

A lot of people showed up to see “When My Home Is Your Business” and their comments after the performance clearly indicated that they recognized the world portrayed in the play, could add to our description of it, could imagine how it might change. Thanks to the dedication of our performers, who spent 12 weeks working to collectively perform such a public vision, this play helped make visible some of the “world-making” that is already happening around public discussions of tenant’s situations in a rapidly gentrifying city. Audience response expanded on that understanding by using incidents in the play to circulate the world-understanding it articulated. What we have yet to see is, to take up Warner’s term, who else will “show up” and who else will “salute.”

Staging relational space

High-rise Buildings as Relational Spaces

Work on our newest play, “When My Home is Your Business…” is moving forward fairly quickly now. One of the crucial steps in making theatre out of the stories participants shared (see our previous blog entries) was to figure out how characters might actually come in contact with each other in the shared space of urban apartment buildings.

When we asked participants to imagine Hamilton ten years from now as a much better city, it was striking how unique each of their stories was. It became clear that each of us was coming from a particular experience of moving through the city. Some knew the city from the point of view of newcomers to Canada and others as long-time residents. Some knew the city from the point of view of single professionals, while others saw it through the eyes of retirees with grandchildren.

Despite these differences, when we asked participants to create a non-verbal image of Hamilton as it actually is, they had no problem using their bodies to create a sense of a shared physical environment that was immediately understood by all. In part because we had recruited participants for their lived knowledge of challenges tenants face, many of these images centred on how people relate to each other as they move through Hamilton’s large rental apartment buildings.

In the weeks of theatrical exploration that followed, our participants created dynamic images of how everyday life unfolds inside Hamilton’s apartment buildings. These images prompted our research team to think about how inter-personal relationships evolve in such places, and how the social dynamics that take place in a high-rise may facilitate and/or prevent people from living together in harmony.

What became increasingly clear as we explored these initial images was how the story we needed to tell was grounded in a very strong sense of place: that of a multi-story structure comprised of both private dwellings and common spaces that people are expected to pass through rather than gather in. From the very beginning of the workshop process, participants emphasized how building management often goes to some trouble to ensure, for instance, that people don’t linger or organize to meet as groups in the lobbies of buildings.

Translating Relational Space to the Stage

Because this is theatre, we needed a set. Contrary to what many people might initially assume, a theatre set is not so much about replicating the “look” of a particular space. What is more important is to create the space in which characters can move into an out of particular kinds of relationships. In our case, this meant a space where each character is expected to have control of the small space behind their own door, but where they must also move through common spaces where they encounter other tenants.

Our designer, Melanie Skene, whose gorgeous puppets some of you may have seen at Take Back the Night or at performances by the Hamilton Aerial Group, came up with a great way of showing this, as seen in the drawing at the top of this post. The set is simple, easily transported, and – one of the things that was most important to us – it asks the audience to imagine a space that may remind them of spaces they know, rather than suggesting that the action of the play could only take place in one particular building. Once we had a clear sense of the space, performers were able to weave together snippets of various stories by improvising encounters centred around the issues they have experienced, directly or indirectly. As they moved through the space telling these stories, the world of the play started to come to life in exciting ways.

On one level, creating the space of the action was important simply because this is theatre, not a series of speeches or a policy report. (French theatre theorist Anne Ubersfeld, in her book, L’Ecole du Spectateur, actually defines theatre as “talking bodies evolving in space.”) But through our workshops we quickly realized that defining the space in which we could imagine this world is about much more than the demands of a particular art form. As we started to tell stories by moving through this particular space, we quickly saw how the organization and control of any space opens the possibility for some types of relationships, and makes others much more difficult.

The question of the kinds of relationships that can happen in particular spaces, it seems to us, is not only a problem for theatre-making. Rather, thinking about space in our theatre-making process has pushed us to also think about the ways in which the control of space affects the kinds of relationships that will be possible in Hamilton ten years from now. This is already a pressing question where “my home is your business…”

Are there ways in which you have seen the organization and control of space affect the kinds of relationships people can develop in Hamilton? We’d love to have you share your observations by commenting on this post!

Personal and Community Transformation

“In the process of conversation, change happens”

— Jones

Editor’s Note: In this blog, "Jones" discusses the transformative potential of Transforming Stories and advises other Hamilton community members why they should participate. Jones is a community performer on Transforming stories.

Have you seen any changes come about from the transforming stories pilot?

I would like to think am a very good observer. That’s my secret. I observe things. And I have observed some changes in the community. The last time we came together I had to say, “Guess what? You know things are happening! And they asked, “What do you mean?” So I said, “Such and such agency have changed their policy and then another agency did the same thing. And some other agencies are doing the same thing. I don’t know for sure but we could be having some impact!” And it’s not just one agency. It couldn’t be just coincidence.

One person that could affect change attended almost every performance we did. She even knew when we changed some aspect of the skit. Sometimes we did a little tweak and sometimes I wondered if I should tell her what we did. And I thought, no I think she knows it. I don’t have to tell her anything. And she was like, “Oh, you guys changed skit up a little bit.” So, she was paying attention. From her agency there were some changes that were implemented. Which showed in my opinion that if you talk with people, and you have discussions, not telling them, not yelling at them, not blaming them, but have discussions change can happen. Transforming Stories is about discussing the problem. It’s a conversational piece. But in the process of conversation, change happens.

What about you? How has Transforming Stories changed you?

I think it gave me a voice, in an area I didn’t think it would. So, we’ve done talks, workshops, and interviews, which were all valuable. We’ve gone to some social work classes and some other community events. We have given some community talks and presentations. We’ve talked about the committee and what we do.

In going through all these stuff, it can be traumatizing. But I found conversing about these issues in this format, it was therapeutic, even though it was nerve-racking going up on stage and bearing it all. I am not very good at — one-on-one is great. Public? Oi! It’s nerve-racking! And I’ve gotten so many complements from people, including, the director. She said, “You’re really good at this. You are a natural.” And I say, “Mm-mm! You have no idea. I couldn’t sleep at night. I kept on thinking about this stuff. I was this nervous wreck!” And she says, “Girl, I didn’t see one hint of nerves.” And I will say, “Really?” So, I think something came out of this whole thing, which I didn’t even know I had. I began to speak and converse in a way. And my voice was heard. They were things that I want to say that I did not get to say at all. Or not allowed to say. Or I thought about it but didn’t say anything, but put on a smile. But I got to say some of those things. And I have more, trust me I’ve more stories to tell.

What advice would you tell a community participant who wishes to participate in Transforming Stories?

Advice number one, I would tell them to attend one of our performances. Most times they are free to attend. See what we are doing, and come chat with us. We look scary, but we are not scary. We are the most soft, shy, reserved women that you will ever come across. You know?

And I would encourage people to jump in. It’s not as scary as it seems. If you don’t feel that you have the guts to do the performing, sit around and watch the people that perform. You will learn so much. Because we still struggle with talking about this difficult stuff. And sometimes people feel or say that, “I don’t want my story to be out there.” Well these stories are a combination of people stories, it is not just one particular person’s story. My character’s stories are things that I’ve heard from friends, some have happened to me, some I have witnessed, Like taking someone to a place to get services and you hear some of these things being said.

And it’s good, because you get to say what you really want to say. And the people behind the desk get to hear what you really have to say without it being directed at them. Because they are human beings as well.

So, I say to people, just come. Attend performances. Join. And see where this can take you, because you would be surprised how much impact you can have for yourself and your community. It’s going to be the best thing ever, because you become part of the solution.


Saying what we really wanted to say



“Transforming Stories actually helped us to tell exactly what we want to say… instead of saying what they want to hear.”

— Jones

Editor’s Note: In this blog,"Jones" discusses the performance-as-research process from her perspective as a community performer on Transforming Stories.

When we were planning this whole skit, we didn’t know where it was going to go. We were just following the leadership of these wonderful people. We had three chairs set out. And we pretended that people were sitting there like you’re sitting in front of me right now. The chairs represented different agencies. It could be any agency; it could be your medical doctor, pharmacist, and specialist. Someone who works in social assistance, a case manager, a housing manager, someone from the food bank. Anybody you want to have a conversation with.

In the whole process, we spoke to the empty chairs, making statements that were expected of us to say normally to these agencies and service providers. What we would like to say to these people if they were in front of you? All of us, in real life, we all have the polite way of saying things, you know?

There is this thing in the community, where you feel that you need to say this, this, and this to get that.

So, you say this, this, and this.

But… what you REALLY want to say is not coming out.

The directors, they wanted us to say what we REALLY wanted to say.

Instead of what we SHOULD say.

You know what I mean? And so we went for it. Oh my God! I think that was the best breakthrough, I mean for me personally. And I think for the people who we were working with. Because we actually went ALL OUT!

This never made the skit, but I have to share this example. Going to your doctor’s office, your doctor will say to you, “How are you? What can I do for you?” And you say, “Oh, I have a headache.” And the doctor will say, “Fine. Take Tylenol”. Or send you to another institution. What you really want to say is, “Doctor, not only is my head hurting. My neck is hurting. I’m grinding my teeth. My back is hurting me, and I can’t sleep at night.” But for various reason the doctor doesn’t want to hear all that, you know?

Transforming Stories actually helped us to tell exactly what we want to say, instead of saying what they want to hear or what is expected of us to say. Which is the secret to this whole project. It evolved that way. Plus we have this wonderful great team who knew how to channel us in the right spot.

The organizers [of Transforming Stories], they are amazing human beings. They are amazing. They get it. They understand and appreciate what we have gone through. And they appreciate that we are sharing this. Because it takes a lot of courage to be vulnerable. To talk about your dirty laundry. And this is not just your dirty laundry, this is the dirty laundry of all of us, in the community. It is all of our problems. And to have them acknowledge that even though they may not have had some of our collective experience, or even exact experience, or even some of what we have gone through. They were wowed!

And they protected our integrity. They protected our mental state because when you are talking about stuff like this, it is very challenging. They made sure that we were taken care of emotional-wise. And they made sure that we felt that what we were saying was worthwhile. I think it’s because of that, I and these wonderful group of women performed the way we did and why were we were able to do this. Because we couldn’t do it ourselves. It is like you have a car with all its bells and whistles, and if there’s no oil in there or if you don’t fill the tank with gas, you ain’t going anywhere, right? So, the organizers were the oil and the gas for us and helped us perform this powerful, ground-breaking awesomeness!

Cassandra Roach on displacement


“Many of the people being displaced are the more vulnerable in our society.”

— Cassandra Roach



Editor’s Note: One of the aims of Transforming Stories, Driving Change is to bring greater attention to issues of gentrification and displacement in Hamilton. Cassandra Roach the Community Outreach Worker for Transforming Stories, Driving Change shares her reflections on displacement due to gentrification in the Hamilton area.

Displacement is the involuntary loss of housing, losing the place you live in due to no fault of your own. And gentrification has increased displacement in Hamilton. This is because gentrification increases the perceived value of a neighbourhood. People who have more money come into a low-income neighbourhood, and then they put more money into it. So, the price of everything goes up, including the price of rent. So landlords want to take advantage of this so they attempt to kick people out of the places that they live so that they can raise the rent.

The Residential Tenancy Act has rent control guidelines. For instance, in 2017 landlords could only raise tenants’ rent by 1.5% per year. The concern is that landlords are doing everything they can to kick current tenants out to raise the rent beyond the guideline. And so, people are priced out of their neighbourhood. These neighbourhoods might have resources that these folks need, or exist in a community that they love. Maybe their children go to school in these neighbourhoods, and now they have to leave and look for another place.

Now in Hamilton, the price of housing has increased everywhere. It is tough for people to find affordable housing. Folks on ODSP, on OW, people on fixed incomes, have a difficult time finding a place. And of course, many of the people being displaced are the more vulnerable in our society. Individuals who are new Canadians, who are racialized, single-parents, sex workers, people who are already having trouble paying the rent because of low income. Gentrification increases this issue tenfold. And then once people are pushed out, they are displaced. It is hard for them to find an affordable place in their neighbourhood because the rent has increased everywhere.

A powerful way of communicating issues

“When the Transforming Stories team came to us, we were part of an advisory committee that advised a larger committee that supports women who were facing homelessness. So, there were two co – chairs and 8 members. City employees we worked with introduced us to people at McMaster’s Social Work and Theatre departments. And they came in, talked to us about the project and asked us what we thought about it. And we were like, yeah let’s go for it. Why not? We came to educate and inform. That’s one of our primary objectives to inform about the gaps in the system, to provide the women’s perspective.”

— Jones

Editor's note: 'Jones' is a pseudonym chosen by one of our anonymous project participants. Every now and then we will hear from our participants about their experiences of Transforming Stories, Driving Change.

What is your role on the project?

I performed as one of the characters who had all of these experiences. Life happened. She was unable to go back to work or continue work, and she was then beginning to face all of these challenges: losing her family, having a marriage dissolved, and all these other things. Some of the information we used in the skit is not only ours, the people performing in the play, but it’s also our friends, people who we’ve talked with, people who have shared stuff with us. So, the stories come from different voices. These stories are a combination of all these different experiences. And I think that was powerful because you realize how similar we are, that we all walk on this path. We think that we’re just alone, but then when you start talking about it you start realizing, oh man there something wrong here! All of these experiences are like my experience. Something must be wrong. So we kinda brought all those stories together. There is a little bit of us in there. But not so much so. It is actually saying what is happening out there. It’s sharing stories.

Have you ever use arts approaches before to share these stories?

No! No! Not like this. We have not! And that’s the beauty of this project because I didn’t go to drama school. I don’t know much about acting or anything like this. It was nerve-racking! Right? But we had good mentors, directors and teachers. They were just awesome. And it all came together with us telling these stories. It was fascinating!

For a person who does not know Transforming Stories how would you describe the project to them?

It’s like sitting around a fire and talking about life, school, health, relationships and stuff. You are relaxed! You’re calm. You are venting, not really venting, but just talking about stuff. You are reminiscing.

I remember the first time we sat down together, we were told to bring an object or two that meant something to us. We sat in a circle and explained what that object was. For me personally, that story circle reminded me of my grandmother. Because grandmama would always sit with us and have this chitchat. This comes from my culture. But the theatre director was saying this approach is common in Indigenous cultures too, this story sharing. And I thought they do this too? I guess were all the same.

And it brings a sense of community. Because you are in a circle. There’s nobody above or below. We are one. And I think that’s kind of sets up this catalyst of actions. All the women in our committee, ten of us, we were open about stuff and sharing stuff. And a lot of stuff came out when we were doing this. And that evolved into something else.

So, let me make this short, Transforming Stories is basically telling your story from your perspective without pointing fingers. Because you know, it’s experience. It’s not to make anyone feel bad. It’s not about making anybody feel sorry. But it’s sharing. We are sharing it from a place of truth. It’s not like I’m going to tell you what you want to hear because of your position. It’s more like what I’m going to tell you irrespective of your position. I think the Transforming Stories process takes away the shame. It takes away the pressure. We get down to the nitty-gritty. I think it is a very powerful way of communicating issues.

I hope, this is my hope, I think Transforming Stories should go on. I don’t have anything against town halls, but I’m hoping that we have Transforming Stories about different topics, and have people come around and talk. Let’s have a discussion. Let’s chit chat.